Where’s the secret truant officer?
Have you ever gotten a hold of a live recording of one of your favorite bands performing one of their well-known songs? It’s interesting, to hear the little changes made to the song, and the inherent roughness the live venue gives the song, as opposed to the controlled environment of the studio. After hearing this version, though, most music fans will likely turn to the original when they want to enjoy it. That was the experience for me when watching The Secret Policeman’s Private Party on this new DVD, in which the Monty Python guys and several other notable English comedians do some of their most famous bits in front of a live audience.
What we’re looking at here is footage from a regular comedy and music show started by Python’s John Cleese (Fawlty Towers) as a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Titled The Secret Policeman’s Ball, it’s become a popular event over the years. This disc is labeled Private Party instead of the more giggle-worthy Ball, because it’s a follow-up to a three-disc set of footage from the shows previously released by Shout! Factory. Famous names you’ll find along with Cleese are Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Neil Innes, Terry Gilliam, Peter Cook, Rowan Atkinson, and Dudley Moore.
This is another case of how much you enjoy this disc depends on your previous interest in it. Me? I love the Pythons, but I’m not such a fan that I know all their sketches and whatnot by heart. When I watch this disc and see classics like the parrot sketch, the lumberjack song, or the “Japes Lecture” bits, all I can think is that it’s amusing to see these alternative versions, but it’s more fun to watch the originals. When Cleese adds some new slapstick beats to the parrot sketch, it’s only because he knows the audience has already seen this thing a billion times, and he’s playing to the crowd. I better enjoyed the material I wasn’t already familiar with. A couple of my favorites are Cook playing an annoying man at a bus stop, Atkinson as a teacher reading names off an unusual roll call, and a game show in which the host’s answers have been switched around.
There are plenty of laughs here, but there are some real flaws in the presentation. First is that there’s almost no context about these events and what they’re all about. If it wasn’t for a one-page insert included, I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. Also, footage has apparently been collected from various performances over the years, but we’re not given any indication on screen as to when or where each sketch took place. Some sketches begin or end abruptly, so that we’re only getting parts of them. This is no doubt to create a “greatest hits” experience, but instead it feels like we’re only getting part of the experience, especially when some clips are surprisingly short. Another bummer is that the video and audio are seriously hurting. The picture is grainy and hazy, with VHS-style streaks across the screen. Audio is just as rough, with the crucial-to-comedy dialogue difficult to hear at times. No subtitles, either.
If you’re a fan of Monty Python and British comedy, you’re probably already familiar with this material. The question you need to ask yourself is how big of a fan are you? In other words, consider this one for completists.